by Beatrice Merrick
In his recent budget, the Chancellor announced that it was the government's intention for all schools to become academies by 2020. By "all schools", however, goverment just meant primary and secondary schools, and ministers have yet to respond to calls for maintained nursery schools to be given the same opportunities, despite these having been made over a number of years on a cross-party basis (including by MPs Pat Glass, Graham Stuart and Lucy Powell),
In an article in Nursery World I'm quoted as saying that the move to make all schools into academies could spell the end of maintained nursery schools. This glib sound bite doesn't really do a complex area justice so here's a more nuanced discussion of the risks and opportunities.
First, it's worth remembering that - as was pointed out by Chris Pascal at the recent APPG meeting on nursery schools and classes, if any other part of the sector was achieving Ofsted ratings of 55% Outstanding, there would be a clamour - not least by government - to roll out that model nationally. The academy model is one way in which that could be done, with high performing nursery schools driving improvements in the EYFS across the sector (including in primary schools). Instead, government continues to treat nursery schools as an awkward anomaly to be treated as a bolt on, rather than the bedrock of early years policy.
If all primaries and secondaries become academies, the only schools local authorities will be left running will be maintained nursery schools. Some will continue to support their nursery schools as systems leaders for their early years provision as currently happens in places like Bristol and Lewisham. Other, Conservative-led, authorities had already signalled, prior to the government's announcement, that they wished to see all their schools become academies - but with nursery schools unable to become academies, in areas like these nursery schools are in an impossible position unless they are given the freedom to go down the academy route.
Nursery schools cannot simply disappear overnight - they are subject to the regulations on school closures, and a public consultation must be held in respect of any closure or amalgamation. However, as we have seen time and time again, this process provides very little protection and one third of nursery schools have quietly disappeared over the last two decades.
There is much debate about whether the government are right to want all schools to become academies, and many nursery schools - as well as primary and secondaries - might, in other circumstances, have preferred to remain local authority run. Becoming an academy will not on its own solve the crucial issue of funding, although it may bring greater financial freedomes. Becoming part of a Multi Academy Trust (MAT) may bring economies of scale, but the benefits are untested - MATs of high performing nursery schools could increase their impact as system leaders for the early years sector, whereas nursery schools in MATs with primaries and secondary schools might once again become cinderellas within the system.
Nursery schools have shown their ability to lead and embrace change and new government policies such as running a children's centre, or a cluster of them; taking vulnerable 2-year-olds; becoming teaching schools and delivering initial teacher training for EYTs and PGCEs. Given their extraordinarily successful track record it seems bizarre to exclude them from the opportunity for further innovation that becoming an academy might offer.